Monday, September 28, 2009

Learning & Teaching Business Development – Part 1: Learning

When I became a Senior Consultant with a California business consulting firm in 1996 I gravitated to working with professional service firms and quickly realized that most engineers, accountants, surveyors, attorneys, etc. weren’t very good at securing the most desirable prospects as clients. This is a problem, because if an accountant wants a great practice they have to become a great business developer.

A root cause of the problem appeared to be that while there was a lot of business development/sales how-to information available (Borders, Amazon, etc.), it wasn’t sufficiently focused to be of value to most accountants.

A second impediment is that “Mainstream” marketing techniques simply don’t reach the most desirable prospects; these sophisticated clients instead find professional service providers by referral or personal assessment, e.g. hearing someone at a CE session, reading an article they authored, etc. So, how do you reach out to these people?

To compound the problem, virtually nowhere could a practitioner find a credible guide for what to actually do and say to convert your all-to-rare premium prospect into a client. (NOTE: There was often lots of input from more senior members of the firm, but only rarely could their suggestions be translated into actionable behaviors my more junior accountants. That’s what next week’s post is about.) Where do you learn how to conduct an effective business development meeting once you’ve arranged to get together with them?

There are answers to the foregoing challenges, and that’s what this blog has been about since its inception.

With time, as I worked with accountants in diverse settings ranging from individual practitioners to KPMG practice groups, successful behaviors and techniques began to emerge.

Expanding upon, and further refining those, and blending in a light version of the most highly developed sales behaviors employed by American corporations, a very effective method took shape. With a bit of additional tweaking, the skills proved to work with virtually everyone who learned and practiced the method.

This post is about learning, so we’ll begin by asking the question, “How do you improve your business development skills?”

Most accountants begin the process by observing more senior practitioners. Learning with one-on-one instruction from someone who has a strong business development track record converting prospects into accounting clients is – in theory – the best way to learn, but only if that person can teach you how to succeed using your own interpersonal style.

Why is that? Because if the process doesn’t feel psychologically comfortable to you, the reality is you won’t do it. Or, you will do it for a while but then retreat back to what you are doing now.

In the majority of the instances where I’ve been retained by a firm to help an individual accountant develop their business development capability the managing partner has told me they have essentially given up hope the subject will ever become competent. Then, when I talk with the individual to get their take on the situation, they say things like, “I just can’t do it her way,” or “Dan wants me to say things that aren’t me,” or “I don’t feel good about being that pushy.”

That’s the first big barrier to learning. You must be able to conduct your business development efforts in your own voice; your own style. Any effort you expend to do it “like Susan does it,” is eventually doomed to failure unless your and Susan’s interpersonal styles are similar.

Instead of learning from Susan, another option is obtaining formal sales instruction. SPIN selling, Sandler, Integrity and others are out there and do a fine job. But you aren’t selling a thing, you are selling a service, and you aren’t a professional salesperson. These courses are geared for people employed in full time sales roles.

The accountants I’ve spoke with said that with the time demands of servicing their clients, course relevancy and not having a steady stream of prospects to practice with, formal sales training didn’t prove to be a practical solution.

Now to the second point: Accountants are smart. They are skilled at absorbing details, examining and interpreting data. Not surprisingly, most accountants are excellent “book learners.” And this is a vital skill if what you are doing is generating accounting-related work product or explaining accounting and/or tax nuances to mystified clients. But, this capability takes a back seat when you are in business development mode.

The secret is that excellent business development relies instead upon an entirely different set of skills: empathy, listening, relating, rapport, understanding, etc.

You already have sufficient technical knowledge to address the needs of the vast majority of your prospective clients. The challenge when attempting to convert your prospect into a client is to become adept at the people skills. Too frequently you won’t understand the prospect’s real needs unless you can establish a strong rapport with them. This capability is where you clearly differentiate yourself from the other accountants you are competing with in your market area.

And here’s the thing – you can’t just read about people skills. The only way you can learn them is through practice. Over the last year and a half of this blog I’ve periodically focused on the people skills that have the most impact.

In summary, these are the two foundational keys to learning how to become a great business developer: The first is to adapt the techniques so they feel comfortable and you can be you. The second is to place your priority upon the people-oriented techniques I’ve discussed in prior posts and practice them. (Or, you can go to to get the whole process in one package.)

The next post will address the challenges of teaching business development skills.

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